The argument is as well-worn as your old copy of Nevermind at this point: that the buzz-hungry hype machine eats up emergent acts before they’ve had time to hone their sound, leaving poorly digested and permanently crippled bands in its wake. Jaill, then, is in a position to prove all those hype-haters right: They’d been playing music in various incarnations for eight years before getting signed by Sub Pop earlier in 2010 (this, keep in mind, from the same label that signed Happy Birthday after their fifth show). So the boys of Jaill have had plenty of time to develop their personal brand of Midwestern indie rock. Right?
Well, think about it. How many truly great rock bands have released their most vital work eight years into their career? Shit, tons of important acts have burned through their best work in half that time. It seems, on That’s How We Burn, that Jaill (formerly Jail, by the way) might have done a little too much refining. A lot of the joy on 2009’s rightfully lauded There’s No Sky (My Oh My) came from its overstuffed, all-over-the-place qualities. That’s How We Burn eliminates any extraneous ideas or instrumentation, leaving behind 11 undeniably catchy but collectively monotonous tracks.
Album opener “The Stroller” does a nice job of mirroring the paranoia of the lyrics (“When you’re surrounded, do you hold your breath?”) with its unexpectedly immense, staccato guitar. Yet that’s about all it does: Tension builds and builds, like successive breaths taken in and held. “Everybody’s Hip,” then, serves as one long, joyous exhalation. It’s by far the most assured track on this thing, and it deserves all the gaps it’ll eventually fill on the back ends of December’s “Top 100 Tracks of the Year” lists. The song, though, first appeared on 2006’s 5 Song EP — and what does it say about your big national debut when its best song was first released four years ago?
The rough edges of frontman Vincent Kircher’s Midwestern drawl have been smoothed down on this release, like some marketing executive at Sup Pop’s been gently encouraging new signees to sound as much like James Mercer as possible. Which makes Kircher’s persona all the harder to believe, on this record: He claims to be so nervous that he can barely sleep, that he’s constantly shaking, that his jaw aches from “not having any fun.” But his voice remains so cool and collected throughout that it’s hard to really feel for the guy.
It’s this detached quality, I imagines, that has led some press (and the band itself) to link the sounds of Jaill with the heyday of ’90s slacker rock. But even at their most dispassionate, the foremost purveyors of that genre (Malkmus, Martsch, Mascis) were possessed of a melancholy and vulnerability that Jaill seems to lack. With their dedication to outmoded devices like the guitar solo (virtually every track has one) and the word “baby,” Jaill would seem to fit in better with the revivalist guitar rock of acts like the Hold Steady (who they’ve toured with) and Titus Andronicus. But once again, Jaill lack those acts’ energy and lyrical specificity, making it hard to engage with their music in any meaningful way.
And, well, a lot of this shit is pretty catchy. “She’s My Baby” would make a great second single if such things existed in blog-rock, and that moment in “On the Beat” when the band rises to meet the guitar solo’s growing intensity is pretty exhilarating. Yet for the most part this album is devoid of those special moments — no big choruses, no unexpected climaxes. Just 11 consistent tracks to perhaps one day rediscover, individually, while idly browsing your iPod’s shuffle.